Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s When She Runs is far from an accessible film. Composed primarily of narrative negative spaces that have little if anything to do with a plot, the directors paint their cinematic canvas with lengthy static long shots reminiscent of early Jarmusch. Consider the opening scene where we see a series of shots of Kristin (Kirstin Anderson), a twentysomething woman in a nondescript midwestern Podunk, furiously exercising. First, a full minute of Kristin running on a treadmill in a darkened workout room followed by a full minute of shoulder lifts, a full minute of changing out of workout clothes, and a full minute of her driving home in the dark while listening to a motivational speaker on tape. It takes ten minutes to learn who she is, what she’s doing, and what she actually wants. Here is a film seeking to immerse us within a sense of time and space, not story. It wants us to feel and experience the same stultifying listlessness and dullness trapping its protagonist. It demands the same attention and stillness of its audience that it devotes to its subject.
As the film continues, we learn more about Kristin, mostly through context clues and incidental dialogue. Kristin is a young woman who got pregnant and married (though perhaps not in that order) much too early in her life and the demands of premature motherhood have ravaged both mind and body; despite still having the voice of a high schooler, her whole body seems worn and wiry as if the edges have been sanded off. She spends her days working a roadside snow cone stand to support herself, her emotionally estranged husband, and her five-year-old son. She seems another casualty of recession-era suburbia, trapped by a stagnant economy and a loveless marriage. But Kristin has a dream—she wants to compete in the Olympics. And so she endures a punishing workout and diet regime in her off hours, even going so far as to rent a separate house from her husband and son so she can completely focus on her training.
But When She Runs is far from a motivational film about a plucky young athlete going the distance. The genius of the film is that we slowly realize that her Olympic dreams might not be the goal at all. They may be the rationale for isolating herself from a life she finds suffocating. And slowly a portrait of desperate self-loathing emerges. It seems counterintuitive to dance around “spoilers” in a film so uninterested in telling a conventional story, but there’s a scene involving a certain midnight rendezvous that re-contextualizes everything. If at first we saw her selfish behavior as irresponsible and cruel—particularly concerning how little time she affords her son—we now understand that she’s as much a victim as the people she’s neglecting.
Over the years there’s been no shortage of narratively decentralized festival films like When She Runs focusing on racial and/or sexual others isolated from society that use similar techniques like extended long takes, pensive pacing, and storytelling that leaves the audience to connect the dots about their characters’ pasts. Some like Måns Månsson and Hongqi Li’s Stranded in Canton (Tribeca 2015) and Nele Wholatz’s El Futuro Perfecto (Locarno 2017) focus on immigrants struggling to find personal connections in a culture they find alien and disorienting. But When She Runs seems more in common with Ashley McKenzie’s superb Werewolf (Toronto 2016), a film about two methadone dropouts recovering from heroine addiction who drift from one dreary blue-collar gig to the next. Both of these films see their protagonists trying to redefine themselves in the face of youthful setbacks and pitiless capitalism. And both do so by showing bare fragments of these lives that have lost their center. I wonder if this trend will continue outside the more open-minded world of art cinemas and fancy festivals. I hope so. They seem a powerful tool for dipping into lives forsaken by society without the burden of artificial melodrama.